A researcher says parents’ priorities could affect how their kids behave online. (iStock)

Even as a mom of elementary school children, I was completely engrossed by the “#Being13: Inside the Secret World of Teens” documentary on CNN. The kids featured in the documentary made their vexing online behavior seem normal, and that gnawed at me for weeks.

But what really left an impression on me was the parents near the end of the special, who shared their frustrations about their teens’ online behavior and excessive use of technology. Many said that their kids may have a real addiction to social media. During on-camera discussions with parents, Anderson Cooper displayed one teen’s Instagram post, which belittled women. It left the boy’s father shocked and visibly distressed.

Why do kids engage in bullying or inappropriate behavior online?

The answer could lie in their parents.

Robert Faris, an associate professor of sociology at the University of California, Davis, is one of the people behind the study that was the foundation of “#Being13.” He believes that certain parental behaviors could inadvertently promote aggression in kids. Parents who set poor social priorities, or don’t encourage healthy social relationships, could be unintentionally playing a role in their teens’ disturbing online activity, he said in an interview.

Faris dispells the notion that most kids directly model behaviors online that they witness at home, dismissing the idea that many kids cyberbully because their parents engage in similar actions. However, he does suspect that parents’ priorities could affect how their kids behave online.

Faris uses the example of “status games.” In short, some parents who get overly involved with their kids’ popularity or social status, or who themselves try to “keep up with the Joneses,” could be creating a sense of social competition in their children. If the parents put a high value on social climbing, Faris says, their children may do the same. This could create an unhealthy sense of rivalry in teens who prioritize popularity over true friendship.

That can spawn online aggression. For example, kids who value popularity will start vicious rumors online about other kids in order to tear them down while increasing their own “likes” and followers on social-media platforms.

Faris also believes that the strength of kids’ relationships can affect their online behavior. He has found that friendships that are low-quality, unbalanced and transitory could be a common factor in kids who engage in cyberbullying. His research shows that when kids are asked to name five or 10 best friends, more than half of those named do not reciprocate the feelings. Moreover, he finds high rates of friendship turnover in intervals as short as six months or even two weeks. His research suggests that kids with stable, healthy friendships are more likely to avoid destructive behavior such as bullying and drug and alcohol use.

Faris has also found that kids who make popularity a priority could be on the way to developing fewer healthy friendships. And parents who focus on social climbing could be placing less focus on helping their children distinguish a good friend from a flaky one. To prevent aggressive behavior both online and face-to-face, parents need to teach children how to identify a good friend, how to be a good friend, and why they should demand good behavior from potential friends.

Faris also talked about specific ways parents can prevent their kids from being cyberbullies. He says that many parents do not explore their kids’ social relationships until they have reason to question them. Often, when they start investigating, they discover that their kids are engaging in toxic behaviors.

Faris advises parents to get to know their kids’ friends. Knowing early on what type of people their child is engaging with can give parents an idea of what kinds of relationships they have.

He also believes parents need to get involved in their child’s social-media activity. Much of the time, the parent is paying for the teen’s cellphone and Internet use, so demanding shared passwords is not unreasonable. Faris says many parents, even the ones selected to discuss the “#Being13” findings with Anderson Cooper, don’t monitor their kids’ social-media activity because they don’t always feel they have reason to. Their kids don’t exhibit aggressive behavior, so they don’t monitor them aggressively, or at all. But it should be a priority for all parents.

We can’t keep our children under constant surveillance. As they get older, we no longer are their only influences. It’s up to parents to keep tabs on their activities and make sure they’re engaging with good people, in positive ways. It could translate into healthier, more responsible online activity and interactions with others, and make cyberbullying a thing of the past.

Monica Leftwich is a freelance writer who covers single parenting, finance and women’s health. Find her at monicaleftwich.com or on Twitter @Moleftwich.

You can find more parenting coverage at washingtonpost.com/onparenting, and sign up for our newsletter here. Like On Parenting on Facebook for more essays, advice and news.

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